Suicide contagion. Does it exist?

Nellie Bishop

Here’s a short story that some people really need to hear. In the 1920s there was a woman called Nellie Bishop who was distraught after a messy, broken romance. So she went to a notorious suicide spot and jumped off a cliff in an attempt to end her life.

But her life had other plans. Just as she jumped, a freak wave swept in and broke her fall before she was plucked – gratefully – from the ocean by passing fishermen. You see, halfway down in mid-air, Nellie changed her mind. Suddenly, she wanted to live.

Author and journalist, Peter FitzSimons, unearthed Nellie’s story recently and wrote about it, noting that “despite the blackness that propelled her to jump, despite being firmly convinced that there was no way out for her, that life was not worth living, that death was better than life. . . she was totally, comprehensively and stunningly wrong.

For Nellie Bishop really did live happily ever after. She fell in love again with a good man, had eight wonderful children, of whom five joined the police force and one, Bob Bradbury, became NSW’s highest ranking detective. One of her dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren, Bill Bradbury, became a police negotiator and ended up spending a proportion of his professional life successfully talking people out of suicide. He had a story to tell them . . .”

Talking with Pete about Nellie over a cup of tea a few weeks ago, Pete and I agreed there should be a large plaque erected at that cliff top spot which told Nellie’s story so those contemplating suicide could think about her sliding door moment and perhaps consider how their own life might turn out – if they let it.

If you work in the media, you learn early to tread very cautiously around suicide stories. There are strict media guidelines around the way they’re reported and for good reason*. As adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr Gregg explained to me, ‘Suicide contagion’ is a phenomenon first recognised in 1774 after the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which featured a young man who killed himself over unrequited love. A spate of copycat suicides across Europe led to the book being banned in Germany, Italy and Denmark.


The often-repeated phenomenon was also seen in Japan in 1986 with the suicide of the pop star Yukiko Okada. There’s now also the Yukiko syndrome where the more a suicide is reported the greater the likelihood of copycat cases.

That’s why you’ll sometimes read or hear about a death reported in vague terms. Why the method of a suicide is never disclosed. And why there are so many, many suicides you’ll never know about because they’re not reported at all.

The reasons for these media guidelines are sound but overall, is it a good thing, this silence?

Tragically, I have two friends whose loved ones have taken their own lives in recent years and they have very different views about media coverage of suicide. One believes that the widespread and quite detailed reporting of a high profile suicide was instrumental in the similar suicide of her loved one just a few weeks later. She’s vehemently opposed to any increased coverage. “No more, no way.”

My other friend believes the opposite. She thinks more public discussion about suicide (and especially the mental illnesses that cause it such as depression) is crucial.

Her loved one suffered from undiagnosed depression, something she discovered too late.

Via email, she told me: “I was always one of those people who thought suicide was selfish and the easy way out until it affected me. It needs to be talked about more, not to glorify it but to educate. Kids need to know what help is available and hear stories of how heartbreaking it is for everyone left behind. They need to be shown it’s not ‘cool’ but ruins so many lives; the affects are so far-reaching.


I think if I’d known the signs to look for I could have got him the help he needed, or at least tried. For those who do lose someone to suicide, they need to know they’re not alone, that it’s a tragedy that happens far too often. Talking about it more is key. Every time it’s reported there can be numbers displayed for Beyond blue, Lifeline etc. Even if it reaches one person, it’s helping.”

So where does the Internet come into it? Facebook is the biggest publisher in the world but it’s not governed by media regulations like the ones we have here regarding suicide. That’s how tribute pages for suicide victims spring up within minutes and how thousands of people ‘congregate’ to leave messages and exchange details about the suicide and the person who has passed away.

On the upside though, according to Michael Carr-Gregg, it can be a powerful medium where marginalised, disaffected, disaffiliated young people at risk of suicide are able to come into contact with support at sites such as And psychologists are increasingly moving into cyberspace with counselling sessions by kidshelpline and reachout now available online.

Oh, and Nellie Bishop? In 1988, at the age of 89, Nellie passed away from natural causes as the matriarch of a large and loving family.


*NOTE: the guidelines for media reporting of suicide have recently been ammended. You can read them here.

If you or a loved one need help, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg has provided us with the following websites.

There is free online cognitive behaviour therapy at
Helping young people learn social emotional competencies via a computer game at: www.roc.reach
Has your life been affected or touched by suicide? How do you think it should be reported on and discussed? Is there too much stigma surrounding it?